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Get in touch with your quantified self

How many emails did you send last week? How long did you spend on the phone? How many miles did you walk? The increasing accessibility of wearable tech means that pretty soon, you’ll probably be able to answer those questions, and many more. Apps designed to boost productivity and help you work out have been on the market for a while. Now, more and more people are choosing to document their lives in a series of analytics, to help them make the most of their time at work and at home.

Gary Wolf founded the quantified self movement back in 2008 as a means to foster ‘self knowledge through numbers’. He gave a TED talk on the subject in 2010 and led a panel at this year’s SXSW festival, entitled ‘How Self-Tracking Geeks Are Shaping Our Future’. Wolf made the logical assertion that “what seems like a geeky concept right now has the potential to change how we live.” And he may well be right; after all, every major technological triumph of the last decade began with a nerd and his off-the-wall idea.

In her coverage of SXSW, Anita Schillhorn van Veen at PopMatters suggested that the quantified self’s crossover from an oddball’s pastime into mainstream culture can’t be far off: “With the increase in wearable computing like Google Glass and the Samsung watch, the activity of measuring our activity is becoming more accessible and popularised.”

Quantified living and wearable tech were everywhere you looked at SXSW, with scientists and entrepreneurs leading seminars such as ‘Quantified Year: 365 Days of Tracking Everything’. ReadWrite’s Owen Thomas even wrote a piece on how personal tracking helped him work out and stay healthy amid the excess of the festival: “The mere act of logging what I eat and how I work out makes me think about it, and that constant reminder, in turn, prompts me to include my health in the packed calendar I set for an event like SXSW.”

Away from the festival circuit, Chris Dancy is flying the flag for quantified living. Known as “the most connected man in the world”, Dancy has embraced technology in every aspect of his life; he wears a wide range of personal devices, running as many as 700 systems at any one moment to capture real time data about his work and personal fitness. He cites Klout as an example of the many ways in which this technology is finding a place in everyday life: “If you can measure it, someone will, and that somebody should be you…. If Klout is going to try to measure you, you should at least try to measure yourself.”

Dancy, who works as a director at BMC Software, began his journey as a simple experiment, to find technology that would enable him to keep track of ideas when he didn’t have a pen or paper to hand. Five years later, Dancy has found that tracking his own lifestyle has had a significant positive impact on his health: “I’ve lost 100 pounds and learned to meditate… I’ve also formed better habits thanks to the feedback I’m getting.”

Life-tracking has also led to benefits in Dancy’s work: “If I’m on a call and my voice gets over 50 decibels, my phone notifies me. My heart rate after a conference call usually can give me better insight into the call and my feelings about the call.” He strongly believes that these techniques will become the norm when it comes to companies keeping tabs on productivity and performance. “Call centres have long used metrics such as call time to rank employees,” writes Klint Finley at Wired. “And gamification software may take it to new levels.”

We are currently living in a world of over-sharing, in which we vocalise every stray thought and achievement. Quantified living could be seen as an antidote to this; instead of putting everything out there, it’s all about reflecting on our own data and seeing what we can learn.

“I feel empowered,” Dancy recently told Mashable, “but a bit scared by the looming future of connected humans that can’t handle Facebook, much less a relationship with their life data… I do think it’s urgent that people look at the data they are creating and giving away. So much of our value to our employers, family and peers can be used in ways to make our lives better – instead of lining the pockets of mega-institutions that want to keep our attention.”


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